What does it mean to be creative? Can it be learned?
Man has always been driven to create, and it isn’t a stretch to say that civilisation will not be possible without creativity. “The fact that evolution has linked the generation of new ideas and perspectives to the human brain’s reward system may explain the proliferation of creativity and the advancement of science and culture” stated Dr John Kounios. The professor in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences and director of its Creativity Research Lab suggested in a university release on how An Insight-Related Neural Reward Signal that this is the reason behind human’s development of creativity. Szabolcs Keri, professor of cognitive science at the National Institute of Psychiatry and Addictions in Budapest concurred that “Creativity is related to the connectivity of large-scale brain networks”.
This begs the question, is creativity innate, or can it be cultivated? And if it can be cultivated, how can we do it?
What is creativity?
President of Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), Lee Kwang-hyung defines creativity in his paper Three Dimensional Creativity as “Creativity is the power to create a new idea. It is the characteristic of thinking differently from others”. He advocated that in order to come up with new ideas, it is necessary to break one’s adherence from reality. This “freedom” is often seen in three dimensions — by time, space and field. Kwang’s definition is not new as the need for space to instil creativity is backed by scientific research and opinions from experienced design professionals. This thus renders the Eureka Myth a myth as ideas do not simply come in a flash.
It is important to recognise that creativity is not only meant for designers, but for everyone. Arne Dietrich, professor of psychology at the American University of Beirut segments creativity into four different types:
- Deliberate and cognitive creativity — Individuals who possess this type of creativity share a great amount of knowledge on the subject, and are purposeful in experimenting and developing new solutions. This is very much similar to scientists’ systematic investigations and inventions. In this case, the more information that is readily available, the more relevant items can be juggled in working memory;
- Deliberate and emotional creativity — equally purposeful, individuals who harness this type of creativity are less guided by systematic structures, but by emotions. Individuals who harness this type of creativity often go through the process of “rationalising one’s thoughts and feelings and reflecting upon them”;
- Spontaneous and cognitive creativity — this is the closest type of creativity to the Eureka moments. It often takes place when the conscious mind stops working, and the unconscious mind gets a chance to work. By indulging in different and unrelated activities, the unconscious mind gets a chance to connect information in new ways which spark solutions to the problems;
- Spontaneous and emotional creativity — different from cognitive creativity, ideas and creativity happen in these individuals consciously. It cannot be predesigned for as it happens at varying moments. This is by far the most popularly used definition to loosely term “creativity”, and the greatest testament to the viewpoint of creativity being an innate characteristic.
Collectively speaking, creativity results from the factorial combination of four kinds of mechanisms — two modes of thought (deliberate and spontaneous) and two types of information (emotional and cognitive). Every individual is not limited to just possessing one type of creativity. One who possesses a high amount of deliberate and cognitive creativity can also have a fair share of spontaneous and cognitive creativity and have their Eureka moments. So if we were questioned whether creativity is innate or learned, the answer is both.
How do I think out of the box?
If creativity is all about coming up with something that is different from the others, how do we then use the above matrix to achieve that? The first step is to recognise which type of creativity you resonate with most and take the path and process that will gain you that inspiration you need.
For example, if you are more of a spontaneous and cognitive creative, you can start to be conscious about setting out adequate time and space to move your eyes and mind away from the creative work you need to work on, and engage in unrelated activities that will set your mind “free”. William Alan Donius, author of New York Times bestseller Thought Revolution once stated in Forbes about the unconventional thinking processes he adopts. If you are a deliberate and cognitive creative, keep asking yourself if there are other factors or information you have missed out, because to you, information is the power engine to creativity.
There are many ways to disrupt conventional thought processes, not just on the individual level, but also on the organisational level. Be bold enough to ask “What would we do differently if we were starting the company from scratch?”. This helps to stir deep thinking, reflection in the cognitive creatives and opens up new avenues and space for the emotional to navigate and conceptualise.
Thinking out of the box requires conscious effort, and the “nine dots puzzle” from a 1914 book by Sam Lloyd called Cyclopedia of Puzzles is by far, still the best illustration of this concept.
Danish film director and screenwriter Lars von Trier challenged his friend Jørgen Leth, also a film director, to remake five new versions of his short film The Perfect Human five times, each time with a different obstacle and its own set of specific rules to follow. Both von Trier and Leth were forced to revisit the original film’s idea in many different and unexpected ways. While this challenge received varied reviews and response from the general public, it perfectly illustrates the cognitive approach towards creativity. The duo’s amiable challenge was then made into a documentary, The Five Obstructions.
Creativity is for everyone
Contrary to common belief, creativity is about logic as much as it is about innovation. People are creative not based on what they do. Creative designers do not necessarily harness a higher amount of creativity than a technician or an engineer. They simply possess a different type of creativity. Technicians and engineers, for example, are problem solvers. This means that they source, trial, implement and work around solutions to resolve the issues at hand. Without creativity, things are nothing more than an outdated handbook, and new issues will continue to prevail.
Understanding creativity helps every individual to further leverage their natural talent in everything they do. Think of creativity as a muscle — you need to work it. Just like how creativity requires you to think out of the box, the understanding of creativity in itself should not be fixated; it should instead be allowed free rein to explore beyond one’s comfort zone. And in an environment where social labelling has become ever prominent, it is important to not let labels dictate or limit your creativity.
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Caleb Chu is the founder and chief executive officer of Denarius Consulting. He tells Socium how he does it.